By Allegra Abramo and Susanna Ray
Children entrusted to state care after they are abused or neglected by their parents are bouncing between hotels and other emergency housing, and even being shipped out of Washington with growing frequency, victims of a severe shortage of foster homes.
More than a decade after the courts ordered the state to reduce excessive moves among foster kids, some still find themselves uprooted dozens of times in a matter of months.
This instability ultimately costs taxpayers. It increases foster children’s use of mental health services. As adults, foster kids are more likely to be jailed, have unintended pregnancies, abuse drugs and be unemployed. Experts say the extreme rootlessness experienced by some makes them more likely to fall victim to those perils.
An investigation by InvestigateWest for KCTS 9 and Crosscut shows an uptick in foster children who move so often, for so long, that they have become what experts dub “homeless in foster care.”
“It’s just inflicting more trauma to some of the most vulnerable youth,” said Patrick Dowd, the state official in charge of investigating complaints about the foster-care system.
The investigation included a review of state records and dozens of interviews with social workers, foster parents and others involved in the foster care system.
In an internal email obtained by InvestigateWest, the administrator in charge of the state’s Puget Sound-area foster-care system in July described the situation as a “crisis.”
With no place else to take the foster children, social workers have increasingly resorted to housing kids in hotels at night, then babysitting them in state child welfare offices during the day. In June alone, foster kids as young as 2 had 211 hotel stays — more than any other month since the state child welfare ombudsman began receiving complaints about the practice two years ago.
The state has grown so desperate that it pays some foster parents up to $325 a night, more than 10 times the usual daily rate, to board children from bedtime until morning. It stashes other children in group facilities for runaways and youths with severe mental health problems, not because they need such close monitoring, but because there are no regular foster families to take them.
This can add up to 10, 20, even 50 moves in a matter of months — for young children as well as unruly teens. Earlier this year, for example, a 4-year-old was moved between 10 different families over three months and also spent several nights in hotels, according to records obtained by InvestigateWest.
With each move, kids’ behavior often worsens, making it harder to find a foster family — or even a group facility — able to deal with them. Many eventually flee to the streets, where they are more likely to be victims of sex trafficking and violence.
“If we do not care for these children appropriately, we know, unfortunately, that they then move into homelessness, into our juvenile justice and other public care systems,” said Bill Grimm, a lawyer with the National Center for Youth Law. “So they add to the cost that we then have for taking care of them down the road.”
Evidence of such harm to foster kids helped Grimm and other advocates win a 2004 settlement requiring the Washington Department of Social and Health Services to give foster kids more stability. Once the state met that goal, though, court monitoring of moves stopped. And moves are increasing again, according to state records, social workers and foster parents themselves.
Over the past year, “We would get emails with 20 kids [needing homes] on them, saying it’s a crisis, we need placements, help us,” said Seattle foster mom Lauren Hubbard, who adopted her daughter Angelique Kelley, 15, out of foster care.
In three years in foster care, Angelique moved 17 times — an average of once every two months. It took Hubbard weeks to convince her to unpack her suitcase.
As with many foster kids, those moves left Angelique struggling in school. With all of her school changes, no one had stopped to figure out she had dyslexia. “I just felt stupid,” she said. She’s still four or five years behind.
Amid all those moves, Angelique says, her heart “broke into 17 pieces.”
A major driver of the placement crisis is a large decrease in the number of available foster homes, a topic we’ll cover in a forthcoming story. While the state for decades had about 6,000 foster homes, over the last eight years that number has dropped to about 5,000.
At the same time, the number of kids removed from their homes has increased in the past few years, after falling during the recession, likely due in part to skyrocketing rates of heroin and prescription opioid addiction. Neglect due to parents’ drug addiction is a common reason for kids coming into the system. Other youths have been abused physically or sexually, or otherwise severely mistreated by their parents or guardians.
Beyond recruiting more foster parents, longtime observers say new approaches are needed to care for the growing number of foster children with severe mental health and behavioral troubles.
“The more we get involved, the more we realize just how broken the system is,” said Dan Hamer, an associate pastor at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond who oversees support services for foster and adoptive families and has also taken in foster kids himself.
“We can’t just keep repeating the same thing, and think, oh, we just need more, better recruitment, better retention” of foster parents, Hamer said. “You’re not going to get that until you change some of the fundamental problems within the system.”
Some of the most promising fixes include training and paying highly skilled foster parents, expanding mental health services for the most troubled kids and paying experienced social workers enough to keep them around. But these solutions all cost money that would have to come from the Washington Legislature.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has yet to fully restore the steep recession-era budget cuts that trimmed more than 15 percent of Children’s Administration workers, froze social workers’ salaries, and slashed services for foster children and parents.
The DSHS administrator in charge of the foster care system acknowledges that the agency, even if it were properly funded, needs to expand options beyond traditional foster families.
“We, like many child welfare systems, have clung to the foster care model and, rightly or wrongly, have used that as a solution,” said Jennifer Strus, the DSHS assistant secretary who heads the Children’s Administration. “We’re a reactive agency, just by the nature of what we do, and I don’t think that we probably were looking ahead as much as we probably should have.”
“But we’re certainly doing that now.”
For foster kids, the changes can’t come soon enough.
“Emergent help needed!”
In June and July, social workers in DSHS Region 2, spanning Western Washington from King County north, received a string of emails from supervisors with subject lines such as “Placement crisis in the region” and “Emergent help needed!” The regional administrator wrote of “a placement crisis that continues to worsen” and warned that mandatory overtime for hotel stays would be required if not enough people volunteered.
The summer’s surge in hotel use signals how urgent the foster family shortage has become.
Department policy prohibits keeping children overnight in DSHS offices — a common practice in past decades — or in “an institution not set up to receive foster children.” But agency managers can approve “placement exceptions” for children to stay in a hotel, office or apartment.
The number of nights kids stayed in hotels increased more than seven-fold over the last year. In the past 12 months there were 883 placement exceptions involving 221 children, compared to just 120 exceptions involving 72 kids in the previous year, according to the state Office of Family and Children’s Ombuds, which handles complaints about the foster care system. Nearly all occurred in Region 2 last year, with 57 percent in King County. Almost all were hotel stays, but in a few cases kids also stayed in DSHS offices.
In addition to the cost of the hotel room, the state must pay two social workers, and sometimes a security guard, who stay awake all night supervising the children.
Teens are most likely to end up in hotels, but children as young as 2 have recently spent nights there. Three-quarters of the children placed in hotels last year were age 12 and older, and a disproportionate number were children of color, the Ombuds office reported. Many have significant mental health needs or a history of running away, aggressive behavior, or using drugs or alcohol.
Those troubled kids are tough to place in any foster home, Strus of DSHS says.
InvestigateWest learned of one teen who recently spent 38 consecutive nights in hotels. Others have spent two or three weeks in hotels, often interspersed with one-night foster-home stays.
Child advocates call the practice unacceptable.
“These are youth that probably are in greatest need of stability… and yet these are the ones that don’t know where they are going to be sleeping the next night,” said Dowd, the state ombudsman.
Hotels are the option of last resort. One step below that are a handful of high-priced foster homes that agree to put children up for one night at a time for daily fees ranging from $40 to $325. Those amounts can be on top the $100 per night paid to some so-called receiving homes that take children when they first come into care. Standard reimbursement rates for most foster parents start at about $18 a day.
DSHS said such high fees are typically authorized for children or youth with very high needs.
These night-by-night foster parents often require social workers to drop the children off after 7 p.m. and to pick them up as early as 6:30 in the morning. With no one to drive them to school, these children typically spend the next day sitting in a DSHS office.
“The youth is not getting any sort of positive relationship or nurturing from a caregiver,” Dowd said. “And what kind of message does that give the youth as far as their own value?”
Several social workers said using such night-by-night foster homes is not new, but that the fees they demand have crept up steadily.
“They kind of hold the department hostage, which is a horrible thing to say,” said Tanya Copenhaver, a social worker with the Children’s Administration for 15 years who left a year ago for a better-paying job in healthcare. “But you have to place the kid somewhere, so you have to pay the money.”
Strus denied that the situation is markedly worse than in the past. “To describe this as a placement crisis that is new to us would not be accurate,” she said. “We have always probably had a need for more foster parents than we usually have. The kids have gotten more difficult… and it’s difficult to find people who are willing to take these kids on with their multiple issues.”
A new six-bed facility that opened in July in Seattle has helped ease the immediate crisis, Strus said. In August, hotel stays dropped to 25. This fall, another 20 beds for teens will become available.
But long-term, two dozen beds are not going to solve the crisis.
More moves, more troubles
After family turmoil left him homeless at age 13, Ronnie Andrews says he moved nearly 50 times in five years, mostly between short-term group facilities.
Andrews, now 18, remembers one of the many times his social worker came to move him. They loaded his few possessions into her car. “I looked in the back, and I just seen all my stuff in plastic bags, and I just started crying,” Andrews said.
“I cried ‘cause of how bad it was to sit there and look at that … and how many times I’ve had to take my stuff out of those bags, and like a week or two weeks later, having to put them right back in there.”
Andrews’ story is similar to that of the dozen foster children who filed the Braam v. State of Washington class action lawsuit, which was settled in 2004. The judge agreed that children had been harmed by excessive moves and unsafe placements, including stays in DSHS offices and detention centers.Under an independent monitor, moves among foster children fell steadily through 2011, when the state met agreed-upon benchmarks and court scrutiny ceased. But the number of moves appears to be creeping up again. Southwestern Washington, in particular, has seen a sharp spike in moves, with rates that are one and a half times the state as a whole.
Between 2012 and 2014, the percentage of children with three or more moves in the first year of care rose to 19 percent from 15 percent, according to a DSHS report to the federal government. The federal standard says no more than 14 percent of children should have that many moves.
These averages conceal the stories of many children who still experience dozens of moves.
Among many other examples documented by InvestigateWest in the past year:
- A 7-year-old had 18 placements over about two months, including 10 different foster homes, plus time in group homes and hotels.
- A 3-year-old who was initially placed in a short-term shelter laid his head at five foster homes within two months.
- Over a two-week period, a 5-year-old was shuffled between six homes and also spent several nights in hotels.
- A 14-year-old spent 40 nights in hotels and one-night foster homes before the state found a family that would keep him longer — for a fee of $200 a night.
These kids represent a small portion of the roughly 9,000 children in foster care in Washington as of this summer. But social workers say that it has become increasingly difficult to find any family — let alone a family matched to a child’s needs — even for the youngest kids in need.
In the past, veteran social worker Copenhaver says, she had some ability to be mindful of a child’s cultural and behavioral needs in order to find a home that might last. “But you’re not able to do that now, because we just have to place them where there is a bed available, and a foster parent who’s willing. … And that leaves kids bouncing from home to home to home.”
Even when a home is available, many foster parents are not prepared or trained to take emotionally troubled children. At least half of foster children have serious mental health or behavioral problems, studies show. And when “the inevitable explosion with these kids happens, there’s no support” from the state, said Hamer, the Overlake Christian Church pastor. “So it’s placement number 19, placement number 20.”
When foster children are shuffled between homes, trusting and attaching to anyone becomes harder and harder, experts and the kids themselves say.
The more children are moved, “the less likely it is that they’re going to make an emotional commitment or investment in the next home,” said Dee Wilson, who led a research institute at the University of Washington School of Social Work after 26 years of service at the Children’s Administration. “So you can end up getting kids who are very, very hard to find them a family at all after a while, because they have a deep distrust of adults that’s based on some really good reasons.”
Ronnie Andrews remembers how he felt more detached with each move.
“I would sit there when I first moved into a place,” Andrews says, “and I’m like, ‘Do I even want to build a relationship? Do I even want to try in this place? ‘Cause how long am I even going to stay here for?’”
Like many long-term foster children, Andrews turned 18 without being adopted or finding a legal guardian.
More than half of youth who age out of care without ever getting a permanent home were in foster care for three or more years, according to DSHS’s 2016 progress report to the federal government. Children of color tend to stay in foster care longer and to experience greater instability than white kids, the report says.
Children who enter foster care with behavioral problems, not surprisingly, are harder to stabilize. But studies show that even children who don’t start out with problems are more likely to develop them when they are moved around.
Young children, in particular, are harmed by instability. For children under 3, every additional move has been linked to more behavior problems. For older kids, unplanned moves — usually because the foster parents can’t cope with the child’s behavior — have the most negative impacts, Wilson said: “It frequently is viewed by the children as rejection, which a lot of times it is.”
Tougher kids, fewer resources
Foster children are coming into care with more problems than ever, experts agree. That’s due in part to the state’s success at keeping children with their families by providing voluntary services, meaning the kids who end up getting removed are the ones for whom those efforts haven’t been successful. “So you inherently get more difficult children,” Copenhaver said.
At the same time, resources to care for such children, including residential facilities and specially trained “treatment” or “therapeutic” foster families, were slashed during the economic downturn.
Concerns about the quality of care in group homes and high-profile abuse scandals at some facilities, such as the former O.K. Boys Ranch in Olympia, also spurred efforts to shutter many group homes in recent decades. Now some say the state needs to reverse course and expand group-care options. But they also caution that children should not be warehoused in such facilities for extended periods.
State Rep. Ruth Kagi, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, agrees that the state must increase capacity in group homes. “But by far the best alternative is to develop therapeutic foster homes, where foster parents are well-trained on how to manage these behaviors,” Kagi said. She has also asked the department to report by November on what’s needed to address the placement crisis and how much it’s likely to cost.
To avoid placing kids in group facilities, DSHS is considering expanding the use of so-called “staffed residential” foster homes, where foster parenting is a full-time job, according to Strus.
But even if the department gets programs like this running, “the thing that throws a wrench into that is … the Legislature cuts your funds, and then you can’t sustain what you’ve built,” Strus said.
In February, Gov. Jay Inslee convened a commission to evaluate the creation of a stand-alone Children’s Administration. The group’s report to the governor is due Nov. 1.
Kagi, who co-chairs the commission, used to oppose spinning off the Children’s Administration. Now she thinks it could lead to a stronger, more coordinated focus on child welfare. “We need to have a department where that department head speaks to the governor directly … and where children are just a focus of a department,” she said.
Others doubt that such a restructuring can undo decades of inconsistent and inadequate funding. “The Legislature has just practically, by their mismanagement… condemned the state [child welfare] system to mediocrity,” Wilson said. “The idea that somehow there’s some cost-neutral way of fixing this, well that’s just not true.”
You can reach Allegra Abramo and Susanna Ray at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. We are particularly interested to hear from foster parents, former foster parents, social workers and former social workers.
Robert McClure contributed to this report.
This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Satterberg Foundation.
InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom producing journalism for the common good. Please help support this effort at www.invw.org/donate.